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Charles-Frédérick Ouellet’s shot of a French firefighter is among the North American regional winners

Canadian photojournalist Charles-Frédérick Ouellet has won a regional award at the World Press Photo Contest for a picture documenting firefighters’ gruelling work during the record-breaking 2023 wildfire season.

The photo is part of his project A Day in the Life of a Quebec Fire Crew; other images from it were featured in a Globe and Mail photo essay last June. The winning shot, a black-and-white portrait of a firefighter standing on top of a huge boulder, gazing at the burnt forest around him, was taken in July about 50 kilometres north of Saint-Ludger-de-Milot, Que.

The picture’s subject is Theo Dagnaud, a French firefighter living in the region. “We were doing patrols in fire zones that were almost extinguished,” Mr. Ouellet said in an interview.

Other wildfire photos recently recognized by the World Press Photo Contest have featured flames and firefighters in California, Greece, Portugal, Russia and Australia – all in colour. “I wanted to make a more personal edit, closer to my approach,” Mr. Ouellet wrote in an e-mail. “I chose to do an edit where there was no trace of the fire, concentrating on the feeling of exhaustion.”

Mr. Ouellet, who was born in Saguenay, Que., and lives in Quebec City, has been a photographer for two decades. His work “explores the enduring dynamics of resistance and change in the social and physical landscapes” and “grapples with his deep concerns around the issues facing us today,” according to his website. His pictures have been published in several news outlets including The Washington Post, Le Devoir and Le Soleil. He has published three photography books and presented exhibitions in more than 15 venues in Quebec and abroad.

Last year was the worst wildfire season on record in Canada, with thousands keeping crews busy across the country. The fires forced the evacuation of thousands of people, burned more than 17 million hectares of land and blanketed much of the continent with thick smoke. In Quebec alone, the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU), the province’s wildfire agency, reported that nearly 27,000 people were evacuated from northern communities such as Sept-Îles, Mani-utenam, Chibougamau and Lebel-sur-Quévillon.

Mr. Ouellet headed to the front lines. He trained with the SOPFEU and worked alongside crews in the Saguenay – Lac-Saint-Jean region. In addition to The Globe’s commission of his work, Mr. Ouellet’s project was supported by the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.

The World Press Photo has recognized the best photojournalism and documentary photography each year since 1955. The 2024 edition selected 24 winning projects, six honourable mentions and two jury special mentions out of entries from more than 3,800 photographers. Mr. Ouellet’s work won the “singles” category for the North and Central America region. Global winners in four categories – photo of the year, photo story of the year, photo long-term project award and photo open format award, all selected from regional winners – will be announced on April 18.

Regional winners showcase pictures of some of the most significant events of 2023, including the deadly earthquake in Turkey, the war in Ukraine, the Amazon drought and the global migration crisis. The jury exceptionally included two special mentions reflecting “the gravity of the Israel-Hamas war in 2023, the extreme suffering of civilians and its global political impact.”

Mr. Ouellet said the prize has made him reflect on his career. “It’s an award that makes me look back on 20 years of practice and see how much my work has taken shape over time.”

World Press Photo Contest: More from the North American regional winners

Winner, long-term projects: Alejandro Cegarra, ‘The Two Walls.’ For years, a Venezuelan photographer chronicled the migrant caravans at the U.S.-Mexico border, and attempted crossings from the Mexican side, like this one on a freight train in Piedras Negras. In Mexico, thousands of asylum seekers are waiting in bureaucratic limbo – and often in danger from cartels and corrupt officials – as governments on both sides enforce policies to keep newcomers out. Alejandro Cegarra/The New York Times/Bloomberg
Winner, open format: Mackenzie Calle, ‘The Gay Space Agency.’ This photographer combined fiction and fact to reimagine space history after she searched NASA archives for records of queer contributions to the space program, finding none. In the 20th-century space race, it was risky to be open about sexuality; applicants for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions had to be screened twice to ensure they were not gay. Some astronauts, such as Sally Ride, were confirmed as queer, but not until after their missions. Mackenzie Calle
Winner, Stories: Jaime Rojo, ‘Saving the Monarchs.’ This photo project followed the months-long migration of monarch butterflies, and the people along the route who hope to reverse their population collapse. In an Indigenous community in Mexico, the photographer met members of the Mazahua community, who believe monarchs to be souls of the departed. On the Day of the Dead, Sabino Marín Reyes laid flowers at a grave to pay respects to relatives. Jaime Rojo/National Geographic
Honorable mention: Sandra Mehl, ‘The First Climate Refugees of the United States.’ Rising sea levels, the result of human-caused climate change, are accelerating the erosion of Jean Charles, a Louisiana island that has lost 98 per cent of the surface area it had in 1955. Storms and high tides make the one road to the mainland chronically impassible. The state is spending millions to resettle its last residents. Sandra Mehl

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